“Help me get back to my baby, or I’ll make your life a living hell.” That’s the voice of Erma Singleton, a dead woman whose body is found on a New Mexico highway. Rita Todacheene, a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque Crime Lab, is frequently haunted by the ghosts of the victims she photographs, but Erma is particularly persistent. Ramona Emerson’s intriguing debut thriller, Shutter, follows Rita through a series of crimes that eventually puts her in the crosshairs of a dirty cop who’s on the take from a powerful drug cartel.
In alternating chapters, readers follow both Rita’s battle against corruption and her coming-of-age as a photographer and vessel for departed spirits. Rita has been haunted by spirits ever since she was a child growing up on the Diné reservation, and her devoted grandmother and a tribal elder have long tried to protect Rita from these voices. Rita’s relationship with her grandmother is particularly well done, as is the novel’s portrayal of Indigenous history and discrimination. As the book progresses, the action revs up in both Rita’s backstory and her crime-solving saga.
As a Diné writer and filmmaker from New Mexico, Emerson has created an intriguing crime drama in a setting she knows intimately, and her photographic knowledge shines. Each chapter is titled after a different type of camera used by Rita, ranging from a pinhole camera in her youth to her mother’s Hasselblad and a digital Nikon. Emerson got her start in forensic videography, so her detailed crime scene descriptions are not for the faint of heart: Erma met a particularly gruesome death, and so do others, including a murdered judge and his family.
Shutter is a promising debut that satisfyingly explores forensic photography and Diné culture within the New Mexico landscape, surrounded by the voices of some very engaging ghosts.